Thursday, December 23, 2010

Towards a New Republic

I find it amazing, the way that people can synchronize and create incredible experiences like these together. My question is whether this is something that can be brought about not just in isolated incidents, but over the course of life as a whole.

A lot of it has to do with a common goal. The difference between a team and a group is that a team has a common goal. Because of this, the individual members are willing to depend upon and work with each other to achieve it. A group merely has members who are pursing their individual interests.

However, that last sentence should throw up a flag, because the members of a team are pursuing their individual interests as well. They just realize that the best thing for them is for the team as a whole to perform well.

It's a pretty simple distinction really, but the moment I really thought about that, I realized how simple so much of what I've been working towards really is. Nearly all meaningful portions of my life have been about getting the people around me, and ultimately all of humanity to work as a team instead of as a group.

My synthesis paper last year was my first huge attempt to figure out a coherent belief system that covered all aspects of my life. I started out with a very strong individualist foundation. I felt that all belief systems had to have a justification from self-interest, but I had to try and figure out what that meant for me. What really was in my self-interest?

I initially started out trying to determine what my actions and concerns would be to best achieve my existing interests. The more of these I wanted to achieve and the more thoroughly I wanted to achieve them, the more my actions and concerns extended outwards into the world. If I really wanted to get everything I wanted, I was going to have to change the entire world anyway. Even more importantly however, was a nagging thought that came into my head. Why do I want these things I want? I began to realize that many of them were completely arbitrary.

This was heavy, and I had to seriously reconsider. I could either set out for an objective basis for what my goals should be, or try to subjectively harmonize them so that I could at least live a happy life if they were all ultimately just arbitrary.

I figured that the only way there could be an objective end goal is if there is an ultimate point to the universe (because individual lives in a pointless universe necessarily don't have a point outside of themselves). The only conclusion I could come to on this line of thought is that if the universe has no objective point, then the only action that could possibly have a point at all is searching for one. Obviously this puts a big priority on avoiding the destruction of humanity, because it cannot continue the search if annihilated (existential risks). Likewise, it puts an emphasis on the search for new discoveries that might bring us closer to finding a purpose (science), and the constructive tasks needed to support, nourish, and inspire everyone as we pursue the endeavor (industry, culture).

On the front of subjective harmonization, I found that having an overarching purpose for humanity led to a much more satisfying life with much less contradictory goals. It allowed me to consider situations in a detached way, and bring about much more joy and happiness in my life. I know where I am going. I know that I have reasons for everything I do. I never become bored, and enjoy a nearly constant state of productive flow. I've found that many complex dilemmas people find themselves in, particularly social ones, are like Gordian Knots that can be cut through most expediently with an integrated value system.

Now, of course, those values of happiness and harmony are probably ultimately set by evolutionary trends, as there is no particular reason that a mind would come to value and be fulfilled by them better than any others. We know that a "paperclip optimizer" is not an invalid possibility, nor do we have any standard to determine that it would be wrong to optimize the universe for paperclips while optimizing for our values would be right. A perspective of objective value fails on that front.

However, I think it is possible that almost every human on the planet shares the core values that can justify adopting a certain kind of value system. Thus, even if there might be no goal that can integrate the value system of every possible sentient mind allowing them to successfully cooperate on a team, I think there exists a real possibility that all minds which could possibly occupy the humane portion of mindspace may have values for which this is the case.

The task that lies before us then, is that of finding a way to harmonize all humane value systems so that they can achieve the fullness of their potential. There are two main elements of this endeavor. The first is understanding how the cognitive evaluation systems of minds work, and particularly how they work in humane minds. The second is understanding how the interpersonal relations between minds can be structured so that their values can be achieved. In short, the tasks of the cognitive-behavorial and the socio-economic sciences.

This is not a new goal, it's been around for a long time. Plato's Republic is the most notable attempt that comes to mind. He was trying to figure out the complex and often contradictory nature of human value systems so that he could create an optimal society. While many of his methodologies may be flawed, his science dismal, and the results unworkable, this is cause for hope rather than despair. We can use the findings of cognitive science and economics, both of which didn’t even exist in the time of Plato. Likewise, we can postulate the achievement of goals using technological means that Plato could never even dream of.

Certainly there is an element of hubris here. Utopia means "no place" for good reason. However, we have learned from past attempts to not take rigid structures of society as the ideal. We have learned that we do not know everything, and cannot ever know everything. However, while better understanding our limitations, we can simultaneously identify with much more precision and scope the basic laws and principles that underlie cognition and social interaction. We know the powers of deontological rules that allow for the development, evolution, and emergence of complex systems. We also have new ways of communicating, entirely new sciences, and breakthroughs across the board.

There have certainly been people since Plato who gave their best shot at the project, but I have yet to see anyone who looked at it in quite this perspective. I believe it not only holds the potential for outstandingly fruitful results, but also deep edification for those who pursue it.


  1. In order for something to have a purpose, does it not have to be created by an intelligence? Did the universe exist with a purpose in mind, or was it simply there? Is it correct to suggest that everything has a purpose outside of what we give it, or can some things just exist?

    Also, what happens if we discover the universe is indeed a paper clip optimizer? Should we devote all our energies to making paper clips, or should we rebel and do what we want?

    The whole teleology thing seems more like Aristotle's domain. Do you know what he had to say about the concept of points?

  2. Intelligence has purposes for things whether they were created by an intelligence or not. The universe may have been created with a purpose in mind, but it makes more sense to say it is simply here until we have evidence to the contrary. I would say that nothing has purpose unless an intelligent being has a purpose for it. Things may have potential, but not purpose. It is quite possible that things exist with no purpose, and in fact I would say that the majority of things have practically no purpose.

    I think we might be having a miscommunication. When I talk about points I am talking about my attempt to find objectively grounded goals in the external universe that mostly failed. When I examine optimizers, value systems, and subjective harmonization I'm discussing a more organic process by which we give purpose to the universe. So I'm more worried about other beings in the universe whose values are incompatible with our own than that the universe has some external value that is inhumane.

    I'm not really sure that Aristotle is going to be the most productive source to review. Neither is Plato for that matter, he just came to mind as someone who tried to analyze in the same spirit. The thing is that Aristotle focused on teleology, which is more like my original attempt at unifying ethics under a point. Plato focused on a harmony of individual values and society, which is much more similar to my current understanding.

  3. Oh, ok. When you were describing this at Senior Threshold, you seemed to disagree with the existentialist viewpoint that we create our own meanings in life. But here, you say intelligence has purposes for things. That makes it sound like all purpose is subjective.

    It is too bad God is gone. He really tied the universe together.

  4. I didn't disagree with it, but I was looking for something more objective. I still strongly disagree with a lot of the conclusions people draw out of that viewpoint, but I now understand that I was looking at weak cases and people who chase fleeting meanings. Also, the objective-subjective distinction is rapidly becoming extremely interesting and fuzzy for me. I suppose purpose is objective (In the sense that intelligent optimization processes objectively use things to attain their goals) but meaning (the way the attainment of goals fulfills a given value set) is inherently subjective.

    I'm not really sure how to take the comments about God. Are we talking about God as instigator (big bang) as designer (evolution) as connection (joy) as fulfillment (omega)? God is usefully poetically and emotionally, but not very useful for concrete analysis. Just because values are subjective doesn't mean the universe can't be tied together.

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